Aug 10


(Left) The people send me to the university, I go to university for the people. Artwork by Yu Dawu; published by People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1976. 106 x 77 cm.

(Right) Work half-time, study half-time. Artwork by Zhao Zheng, Jin Kequan, published by People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1965. 54 x 77 cm.

From Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
by Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins, Chronicle Books, 2007.

Ever since reading Lincoln Cushing’s Agitate! Educate! Organize! American Labor Posters I have been trying to get my hands on all the other books on political posters that he has helped to produce.

His book with Ann Tompkins on Chinese posters is quite good, and I much prefer it to the Prestel edition on Chinese posters, but the state-produced subject matter and style of socialist realism didn’t really connect with me on a political level.

An exception to the rule, the two posters above did resonate with me, perhaps infiltrating through my deep level of disaffection with the education system. The poster entitled The people send me to the university, I go to university for the people touches on my feelings about accountability of the university and its students to the wider community, while the poster Work half-time, study half-time reminds me of the importance of balance and the way that university can be so totalizing, disallowing or disavowing community engagement, and often so inaccessible for working people.

I have encountered similar principles of mutual accountability in articulations of Chicanismo – where Chicanas and Chicanos have committed to holding institutions accountable to the community while also committing to hold themselves accountable by giving back to the community and, in the case of academics, producing work that is actually useful for the community.

After reading this book, I began reading some Mao and came across this passage on “book worship”. Although the intent of the piece is to denounce dogmatism – following orders from above or what is written in a book without question or consideration for context – it is also a critique of a lack of community-engaged practice, or in this case “social investigation”.

“Oppose Book Worship” by Mao Zedong (1930)

To carry out a directive of a higher organ blindly [sic], and seemingly without any disagreement, is not really to carry it out but is the most artful way of opposing or sabotaging it.

The method of studying the social sciences exclusively from the book is likewise extremely dangerous and may even lead one onto the road of counter-revolution. Clear proof of this is provided by the fact that whole batches of Chinese Communists who confined themselves to books in their study of the social sciences have turned into counter-revolutionaries. When we say Marxism is correct, it is certainly not because Marx was a “prophet” but because his theory has been proved correct in our practice and in our struggle. We need Marxism in our struggle. In our acceptance of his theory no such formalisation of mystical notion as that of “prophecy” ever enters our minds. Many who have read Marxist books have become renegades from the revolution, whereas illiterate workers often grasp Marxism very well. Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship, which is divorced from the actual situation.

How can we overcome book worship? The only way is to investigate the actual situation.

(Bottom) Modern revolutionary dance play: White Haired Woman. Artist unknown; published by Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1972. 53 x 77cm.

Aug 10

No One Knows About Persian Cats / La Commune

It’s unusual to come across a movie where the director encourages you to download and seed their feature length film for free, as Bahman Ghobadi does with his film No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009). Ghobadi asks two things of his audience: 1) to watch the film on as big a screen as possible with nice speakers and 2) to support underground artists in Iran.

Shot guerilla-style without permission from Iranian authorities, Persian Cats is an enthralling combination of docudrama and genuine documentary. The film portrays the struggles of underground musicians in Tehran with actors who live the struggle in their daily lives. The male lead in the film was previously imprisoned 21 days for performing in a rock concert and the main band featured in the film has since moved to London, their intended destination in the film.

Although the film’s plot is driven by the desires of artists to leave the country, I appreciated the scene that features real-life Farsi rapper Hichkas, which acts as a counter-weight to the exodus. When asked to join, Hichkas states that he can’t leave because his music is about Iran and cannot be separated from it.

The full version of the film is viewable here (as well as on a number of torrent websites) and was recently released on DVD:


Updated link: http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/0pJ0UiFXwt0

In Peter Watkins’ La Commune (2000), the actors are not playing themselves – they play people during the 1871 Paris Commune – but the director asks his cast of mostly non-professional actors to imagine what they would say and do.

An accompany documentary on Watkins and the filmmaking process, The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (2001), shows how actors are affected personally, socially and politically by their participation in this historical reenactment.

One actor draws on his experience as an undocumented migrant as a source of inspiration for his speech before a firing squad, wanting to communicate “the horror they’re putting us through” and his preference to die fighting for freedom than to live dying quietly within.

“At some point, we will be facing a firing squad / I’d rather die by firing squad / in the exaltation of a revolt against injustice / than die the small death / that we experience daily as individuals in society: dying quietly within / Dying of despair, depression, a nagging anxiety in the gut.”

Another actor talks about his respect for an uncle who died in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. He says that if you respect someone like him who fought for his convictions, then you have a responsibility in the present to fight for justice, for your own convictions. The example of the Paris Commune presents a similar challenge to actors and the film’s audience.

“He was a Communist / He was 27 years old / He had no reason to fight other than his convictions / I respect him very much / If you love someone like him / you have to be worthy / To be worthy, you must fight / If I may claim to be inspired by that, I must / in our times / find my own way of fighting / as hard as he did for those he loved / For his idea of what it is to be human.”

Movies like La Commune and Persian Cats challenge the passive model of filmmaking and viewing. More than simple stereotypes and entertainment, these films represent the possibility of film as a conduit for social change.


La Commune

The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins

Aug 10

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993). Infuriating. Illuminating. Essential. Watch here or here.

Jul 10

La Haine

La Haine (1995) [Hate]. Dope film. You can see it on YouTube.